Barcelona have been one of the most successful clubs in European football over the last two decades. Four Champions League titles, ten La Liga crowns and six Copa del Rey trophies testify this fact.
However, entering the new millennium, Barcelona were far from the winning machine of the decades that followed. It was a place with characterised by behind-the-scenes chaos and boardroom politics that had seen success at the club become sporadic rather than regular.
Frank Rijkaard appeared to have kicked in an era of glory at Barcelona with the magical Ronaldinho at the heart of his revolution, but as the Brazilian lost his way, Rijkaard lost his plot and Barcelona their aura of superiority.
But in came Pep Guardiola, unleashing his golden generation at the club. Leading his team’s artistry on the pitch was Lionel Messi, still just only an Argentine prodigy with a playing style similar to Maradona.
Papering over cracks
As the years went by and winning titles became a given, Messi carved out his own identity. Managers came and went, key players left or retired but Messi ensured Barcelona became serial winners. Things were never rosy behind the scenes at the Catalan club but Messi’s genius reigned supreme. The Argentine with his excellence helped Barcelona deliver consistent success and comfortably paper over the cracks.
Fast forward to 2020, Messi remains the heartbeat of Barcelona side, but the club’s serial mismanagement is appearing to finally take its toll. It’s come to a point when even the greatness of Messi isn’t enough to ride over the failings of the board.
Messi’s future in doubt
Barcelona may be about to lose La Liga title for the first time in three years but the chaos at the club has led to Messi considering his future at Barcelona. A loss that would be much harder to stomach than that of the trophies.
Messi’s contract is due to expire next year and the Argentinian has reportedly stopped talks due to frustrations with the direction of the club is headed in.
“Messi is planning to leave Barca,” Spanish radio Cadena Ser said on Thursday.
“Right now, Messi’s idea is to finish his contract in 2021 and leave Barcelona. Messi has stalled on the extension of his contract. Negotiations had started very well, with a good understanding between the two parties, but recent events have made Messi reconsider everything.”
Asked about suggestions Messi plans to leave Barcelona, coach Quique Setien said on Saturday: “I won’t speculate about this because I haven’t heard from him so I’m not aware of him saying anything.
“I see him well, everything else is speculation that I won’t get involved in. We speak about what we have to speak about and nothing else.”
Real manager Zinedine Zidane was asked about Messi’s potential departure on Thursday.
“I don’t know what will happen but we hope not because he is in this league and we want the best in this league,” said Zidane.
Dip in scoring rate
Messi appeared to have put his frustration aside as he helped Barcelona preserve their slim title hopes with a 4-1 win over Villareal. The Argentine assisted twice, but couldn’t get on the scoresheet.
Since the restart after the coronavirus pandemic, Messi has only scored thrice, with two of those goals coming from the penalty spot. The Argentine is enduring his poorest scoring season with Barcelona in 12 years.
Lionel Messi's scoring record at Barcelona
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Messi, however, remains La Liga’s top scorer with 22 goals, five clear of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema in second place, but the reduction in his scoring rate seems to have had a telling impact on Barcelona’s bid to retain their title.
Messi who has been at war with the board on several occasions this season also said in February he did not believe Barcelona could win the Champions League on current form.
His frustrations with the board can be one of the reasons for his dip in scoring rate, with a change in the managerial position and struggles of his fellow attacking players also being contributing factors.
The mess behind the scenes
The 33-year-old has also had regular disagreements with the club’s board, headed by president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
According to media reports, Barcelona hired social media company I3 Ventures on a lucrative contract to create fake social media accounts to improve the image of Bartomeu and the board by attacking members and players who had been critical of the president. Messi was one of the alleged victims of this scandal.
Messi also reacted publicly when sporting director Eric Abidal appeared to blame the players for the sacking of Ernesto Valverde in January.
He also led the fightback from the players over the dispute with the board in March regarding pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We cannot help but be surprised that from within the club there are those trying to put us under the microscope or apply pressure for us to do something that we have always been clear that we would do,” said Messi.
Barcelona’s presidential elections are due to be held in 2021, when Bartomeu will have to step aside.
Among those set to run is Victor Font, who wants to appoint Messi’s former team-mate Xavi Hernandez as coach. However, that option now looks unlikely after the former Barcelona midfielder signed an extension with current club Al-Sadd of Qatar.
Yet Barca’s form, as well as suggestions of unrest in the dressing room, have increased scrutiny on Setien’s job in the short-term.
He has a contract until 2022, with a break clause in 2021, but it remains to be seen if he is in charge for next season, or even the Champions League in August.
“I have experienced it other times,” said Setien, when asked about the uncertainty. “It is not something I can control. This the circus that we are in and we accept it.
“I don’t exhaust myself by reading or listening to the noise around me.”
Making managerial changes has been the Barcelona way in the last decade with the club having six different managers in the hot seat.
The quality of players in the ranks helped the club through this period of instability with Messi playing the biggest part in their successes over the last ten years.
However, the board have messed up the signings ever since the sale of Neymar to Paris-Saint Germain and have struggled to replace the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
In 2014-15 after Barcelona won the treble under Luis Enrique, the club fired Director of Football Andoni Zubizarreta, the man who played a key part in their recruitment.
His departure seems to have hurt the club who have made one mistake after another in the transfer market.
Phillipe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele accounted for $430 million of those fees have struggled to make an impact.
The lowest point of Barcelona’s mismanagement at board level was laid bare recently when the club swapped midfielder Arthur Melo touted to be the ‘next Xavi’ for much older Miralem Pjanic.
While the move made little sense football-wise, it was a desperate attempt by Barcelona board to balance the books and avoid a 15% personal liability for the losses.
Time running out for Messi?
Xavi replacing Setien would reinvigorate Messi, and perhaps the team, but the Spaniard is unlikely to take charge while Bartomeu is still in place and more so having pledged his future at Al-Sadd.
Messi’s reluctance to continue contract negotiations could be a political ploy aimed at undermining the current board further. But at 33, he also does not have time to waste.
Unless Barcelona unexpectedly go all the way next month, it will be five years since the world’s best player has won the Champions League. Both Messi and Europe’s elite clubs will be aware he deserves better.
(With inputs from AFP)